photo of Bill Miller courtesy of the author
No thanks, I must be going now
Before allowing me to sign the lease that August of 1982, Mr. Haldeman sat back and insisted on telling me about John, the fellow who lived above the two-bedroom apartment I’d be renting. John was terminally ill with little time remaining. Mr. Haldeman insisted I know of John’s situation from the start.
“You may have to look out for him. John has no one,” Haldeman explained. He adopted the old codger after buying the building from the original owner. “I couldn’t ask him to leave, actually no reason he should. John does what he can to keep an eye on the place.”
I nodded my understanding and assured him that John’s misfortune was not a barrier to my signing a lease.
“John answered the phone when you called, so you’ve almost met him anyway,” Mr. Haldeman said before asking me if I’d go upstairs and introduce myself to him. From the sounds on the other side of the door, my knock must have startled John. Not many people had knocked at his door lately. Fumbling noises tumbled down the hall, jiggling sounds from the chain and the deadbolt preceded my first look at John’s tired face.
“Hi, I’m Frank. I’m moving in below you. Mr. Haldeman said to come up.” John gripped the doorframe tightly with both hands to anchor himself, looking down at the floor as if to convince himself it was there. His labored breath came in long, loud bursts. He wavered a bit, clutching my forearm for support; within a moment I’d entered this man’s private turmoil. John seemed at ease with the small comfort of my arm as we wobbled down the hallway toward his living room.
The furniture in the room was sparse and shabby. John stopped in front of the sole chair. By pegging one leg into the floor and rotating himself around with the traction from the other, he plopped himself into his chair. Hollowed dents in just the right places absorbed the thud created by his landing. Old blankets covered the threadbare spots. I wondered how John’s experiences had worn him out.
“I’m gonna beat this thing,” John barked. I sat expressionless not knowing if I should encourage him or conjure up some self-help strategy on death and dying. “Haldeman said you weren’t well,” I managed to say timidly, feeling queasy that I’d invaded his sanctuary without an invitation. I felt nervous for another reason. Although I’d made my living for some years by interviewing people at a mental health clinic and had grown accustomed to others unfolding their souls so I could voyeur into the crevices, I had no official capacity with John.
“Haldeman worries too much about me. What’s he think I’m gonna do, just up and die?” John groused, almost out of breath by the time he reached his last word.
Looking around, I examined a long trail of original oil paintings that lined his living room walls and continued down the hallway that led to the back of his apartment. The first canvas bumped the second until all had adjusted with just enough room to fit themselves into the available space--village scenes, landscapes, all colorful, each with a distinctive style but remarkably similar in their perspective.
“All mine. I picked each scene and had a local artist in whatever country I happened to be in at the time paint what I wanted to remember.” John explained, scraping phlegm from the back of his throat so he could continue. “Mostly the Sudan. I worked on irrigation projects over there. Don’t miss the climate, but the people were something. Cultured. More manners in one of them than in a whole pack of us,” John said, punctuating his words with pats on the frayed arms of his chair. I imagined that in healthier days John’s pats were poundings made with his fist.
“You picked each scene?” I asked. His swift candidness unsettled me, yet I wanted to grab onto what I could handle of his thoughts. “I stood right behind the artist as he painted.”
I saw what he saw. Actually, I saw it first, but now I don’t have him between me and the painting.” He exhaled slowly, settling himself into a state of peacefulness.
I could feel his need to go on reminiscing. My other errands could wait. This man was dying and his moment was now. I would have felt rude, even irreverent, leaving just then. Besides, I had my own need to remain and listen, compelled by the wisdom of this frail man.
He stared for a long time at several of the paintings and swept his gaze up and down the length of canvasses. He waved his boney finger toward the paintings at the far end of the hallway, those he could not see clearly from his chair, darkened by the day’s waning light. “I can go the whole way from where I started out in my travels to where I ended up. Heck, I can start anywhere in between. I can relive my life from beginning to end or just concentrate on some of the best times in the middle,” he declared laughing like an amateur comedian enjoying his own joke.
“See the one with the tents?” John pointed as I walked down the hallway to stand directly in front of the painting. “I’d go visiting in those tents in the middle of a barren desert.
An invitation from one of the nomads was a true honor. We’d sit on soft cushions drinking thick, syrupy coffee made in copper urns with long handles for holding over open fires. You’d learn to like the taste,” John recalled. He looked as if he had just that moment remembered the exact time when he finally learned to savor the exotic concoction. I wished we each had demitasse to sip as John mused on.
“They treated you well. They had manners. They’d join you in the first two cups, but when they offered you the third cup, well, that was their way of saying it was time for you to go. Your feelings weren’t hurt and they didn’t feel awkward. Then, when the third cup was offered, you’d say ‘No thanks, I must be going now.’” With a smooth wave of his arm toward the tent painting, John smiled like the sage who had just shared his biggest secret with a cross-legged admirer stooped before him.
He remained silent for a few moments and then turned toward me and spoke in a steady, low voice, “You know, life has offered me many cups of coffee, but when I’m offered that third cup, I hope the heck I have enough sense to know it’s time to go.”
* * *
As Thanksgiving approached that November 1982, I’d been presented with information that made me wonder if I, like John, would soon be leaving.
When the phone rang, it was Bill Miller, a former Romeo from almost a decade earlier.
We met one night in the mid-1970s in the Neptune, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania gay bar. Inside the bar, located practically at the foot of the state capital building, the lights were so low I thought it was a time warp back to the McCarthy Era. Maybe Roy Cohn was hunched over a martini in a dark corner, a scared ‘fraidy cat of a closeted weasel who didn’t think he was ‘homosexual’ because he was the top. I wasn’t too far off. Cohn did have local interests in the capital city, as did a full range of cock sucking Republicans and cross-dressers with wives and kids in the nearby suburbs. I’d met Bill in that bar. He made deliveries in a Mary MacIntosh Laundry truck around the city and had stopped in for a drink after a long day. During our maiden romp later that evening, he’d bed-burned off a scab clinging to his left knee, leaving a small bloodstain on my sheet. Bill won me over when he returned two days later with a fresh haircut, wearing a starched white shirt with crisp black pants, his shoes shiny as mirrors in sunlight.
He clutched a set of sheets and pillowcases wrapped up with cloth ribbon that ended in a smart bow. After we’d carried on as horny, young men, living together for a while, Equity card in hand, he made his way to New York City to sing and dance.
In the years between the 70s and now the early 80s, I’d never really stopped coming to his balcony to serenade him out. Twice I’d run into him on the NYC subway, unplanned. There I sat. The subway door parted and there he was. Once, I was padding down a bath house hallway in pursuit of what a sailor buddy called a “hot Kronsit” when around the corner came Bill. He’d been on the same guy’s scent from a different pathway. We jumped back, laughed, and then hastily proceeded to track him down, the three of us emerging sleepy-eyed a couple of hours later from my cubicle. One year on the city’s Pride day, we’d crossed up our communications but there he was at the very end of Christopher Street at Pier 45, tall and handsome as ever. I still have the handmade Christmas cards he’d send each holiday, made in a Midtown art shop where he worked. He befriended Minette, the legendary NYC drag queen. I have one of her letters to me in a tattered vanity box.
That night in 1982 when I met up with Bill in that same dimly-lit bar at his urgent summons that an old boyfriend can command, the lights were just as low. As I approached him in exactly the same spot in the back of the bar where I’d first caught his eye, I saw a familiar sad look, as if he was about to cry, the look that always made me melt, ready to grant any wish or console any hurt. We moved to a private corner claiming a table with two chairs he’d moved next to one another as we sat down. He looked straight ahead, not into my eyes. He put his arm around my shoulders, gave me a familiar loving squeeze, his mouth coming close to my ear, moist like the kisses he laid there before. I could hear his heart beating. Mine too.
“I’m sick,” he said, almost hyperventilating. He unbuttoned the first two buttons on his pressed shirt and pulled down the material. “These lumps, feel them, they’re KS, Kaposi’s sarcoma, gay cancer. I have AIDS. And let’s face it, so do you,” his voice trailed off. We hugged each other as best could in a public space, even if it was a gay bar, shaking, crying, and making our way out the front door melded to each other. In the back alley, we held onto each other silently, rapid breaths hurling between us as our chests mounted and lowered.
“We better get moving. The cops will catch us. We don’t need that now,” Bill said.
“My place,” I said.
“I’ll follow you there,” he said.
“No, come with me,” I insisted, afraid he’d drive off too exhausted from his disclosure.
In bed, the apartment completely dark, we said nothing. I caressed his body. His clutching hugs told me he was scared to death. I made sure to circle the purple lumps on his chest, asking if they hurt. They did some days but not just then.
Our pillow talk was about disease.
“I wasn’t sure what they were at first,” Bill said. “One night playing volleyball this guy spiked a good one right at me. The ball slammed by chest. This one, here, burst open, bled all over.” Days later a biopsy confirmed he had KS.
Bill lived until 1988, the year my first KS lesion appeared on my left forearm. Like John who lived upstairs, I’d often wondered if I’d have enough sense to know when it’s time to go.
Frank Pizzoli's work has appeared in Lambda Literary Review, White Crane Review, Instinct, Windy City Times (Chicago) Huffington Post, ABC.com, Q Syndicate, Press Pass Q, AlterNet Syndication, POZ, Positively Aware, and HIV Plus. He is former editor of Central Penn Business Journal and is founding publisher/editor of Central Voice (LGBT) newspaper.